Wisconsin Legislators Support Corporate Right to Secret Spending

Wisconsin Republicans are pushing a bill to prohibit the state elections board from passing any rules regulating corporations, as part of an effort to thwart rules that would show how corporate interests are laundering election spending through front groups. Lawmakers only meet one day this month (Tuesday, September 13) and plan to take up the bill during that brief window.*

Proposed Bill Intended to Overturn Agency Rule

Assembly Bill 196, approved in late June by the Republican-controlled Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules (JCRAR), would tie the hands of the state elections board and keep it from responding to a drastic increase in secret spending by groups finding loopholes in IRS rules and election law.

The bill is aimed at countering state elections board rules passed last year, and subsequently enjoined, that would have expanded the scope of political campaign advertisements that require the group running an ad, like Americans for Prosperity or Club for Growth, to disclose the identities of the corporations, CEOs, or foundations funding it. With those rules not in effect, voters have been kept in the dark about the corporate interests behind election messages. During the August recall elections, for example, two-thirds of the $25 million spent on ads was kept secret.

Tea Party groups also brought a lawsuit challenging the election board rules, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court heard arguments on the case on September 7. CMD filed an amicus brief in support of the rule.

The state election board rules were passed in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and were created within its bounds. Citizens United has been greatly maligned for lifting bans on corporate spending under the guise that the Constitution protects corporate "speech," but the decision also expressed strong support for disclosure of a corporate-backed group's funding and spending. (The decision states "the First Amendment protects political speech, and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.")

But the Republican bill and the Tea Party lawsuit would allow an election landscape even more lawless than the Citizens United court anticipated, doing away with the limited transparency that might temper the distorting effect of unlimited corporate election spending.

Legislators Promote Corporate Rights Beyond Citizens United

AB196 goes further yet, not only reining in the election board's proposed transparency rule, but also prohibiting the board from making ANY rule "affecting the authority of a foreign or domestic corporation or association ... to make any disbursement independently of a candidate."

This is the case despite the fact that the Citizens United court authorized states to subject corporate "independent expenditures" to transparency regulations. Independent expenditures are the election-related spending besides campaign contributions and made independently of a candidate, such as corporate-funded attack ads and robo-calls. The proposed bill, AB106, would prohibit the elections board from carrying out even this basic function.

This elevation of corporate rights is shocking. It is indicative of a legislature far more responsive to corporate interests than the needs of the human beings who live and work in the state, and demonstrates disregard for the public's right to know. (While AB196 is not an American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) model bill, the majority of JCRAR legislators who approved it -- all Republicans -- are affiliated with ALEC, perhaps demonstrating their connection to the corporate agenda).

Citizens United was considered a far-right activist decision when it was issued in January 2010 (and it still is), but the election landscape has shifted so quickly in its wake that those defending fair election rules now find themselves citing it to hang onto some semblance of transparency and accountability.

According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, the JCRAR approved the pro-corporate AB196 under cover of secrecy, with no public hearings. It is unknown whether legislators will seek public input when they take up the bill on Tuesday.

*Update: BdgrDemocracy describes the legislative trick the majority Republicans are using here: in short, the election board's rule is now suspended because the JCRAR expressed its "objection" to the rule in AB196, and that bill has been calendared in both houses. The bill is expected to be referred back to committee without a vote being taken, which will have the effect of suspending the Government Accountability Board rule until next year, when the session ends.